Ah, Ethics Alarms heaven! The statue-toppling mania issue has collided with the Boston Red Sox, just two days after my pilgrimage to Fenway Park!
ESPN reported yesterday that Red Sox owner John Henry wants Boston to change the name of the street that borders the legendary park, Yawkey Way, and he is trying to exploit the current political correctness mania that has cities pulling down statues of war heroes in the dead of night to accomplish his goal.
That’s my characterization, of course, not ESPN’s.
Henry told the Boston Herald that he is “haunted” by the racist legacy of previous owner Tom Yawkey, who led the team from 1933 to 1976. Because he is haunted, he thinks that it is fair and right that the man who beyond question saved the team, ran it as a Boston institution and public utility, and is as responsible as anyone for the fact that Henry owns one of the prestige franchises in all of sports, should be dishonored and shunned because he wasn’t enlightened about civil rights long before Martin Luther King began marching.
Such disgraceful moral grandstanding and self-righteous ingratitude is seldom seen. But I guess if anyone should be able to grandstand, its someone who owns a baseball park.
For those who mock the idea that the desecration of Robert E. Lee’s statues leads directly to George Washington, now hear this; for the Boston Red Sox, Tom Yawkey is George Washington.
The only owner any one remembered before Tom Yawkee bought the team was Harry Frazee, consigned to Beantown Hell for selling Babe Ruth (and many other stars) to the New York Yankees in 1919. From that moment on, the team was a perennial loser, often in last place, while New York won pennant after pennant and sneered at its proud rival on the Bay. In 1933,
Tom Yawkey , a lumber tycoon and baseball enthusiast, bought the team and poured money and love into it, buying other team’s stars (Left Grove, Joe Cronin, Jimmy Foxx) and turning the team into worthy challenger to the Yankees. From the beginning, Yawkey paid no attention to the bottom line as he tried to build a champion out of the franchise, or as he put it, “to bring a championship back to the fans of Boston.” This was during a period when teams had permanent control over player contracts, and most owners used that leverage to pay players pathetic wages. Not Tom Yawkee. He was criticized for over-paying players–hilarious now, when we’re talking about his paying a utility infielder $15,000 when others of his ilk were making just $8,000, and current utility players make a couple million dollars a season. Sportswriters in Boston called the Red Sox a country club, and blamed Yawkee for “falling in love with his players.” In 1960, Ted Williams had to ask Yawkey to cut his salary, because he felt embarrassed after a bad year, his only one.
Was Yawkey a racist? He was born in 1903, and grew up during the Wilson Administration, when Jim Crow really took of. Sure he was a racist, along with about 95% of the whites in the nation. His team’s policies reflected those attitudes, but it is fair to point out, as Henry does not, that those attitudes were Boston’s as well. I grew up there: it was a racially divided city then, and to some extent still is. Yawkee is blamed for the fact that the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate (the Yankees were the next-to-last), and that the team gave Jackie Robinson a tryout and scouted Willie Mays without signing either. There is no evidence that Yawkey had anything to do with those decisions (which only look like horrible mistakes in hindsight), and there were 14 other teams that failed to recognize the potential of Robinson and Mays. Yawkey also may have been evolving, like George Washington, who ended his life as a slavery opponent. The 1967 Red Sox had three African-American regulars, and added a fourth, Elston Howard, for the stretch run, The Red Sox World Series roster had five blacks on the team, or 20%.
When Tom Yawkey died, the City of Boston re-named Jersey Street, which runs past the entry to Fenway Park where the Red Sox play, Yawkey Way in his honor. The name also doubles as an honor for his wife, Jean Yawkey, who continued to own a portion of the team until her death.
I’m sorry that Henry is “haunted,” but the reality remains that Thomas Yawkey was a significant and perhaps the most significant and influential figure in Boston Red Sox history, and his influence on baseball, the Red Sox and Boston was more positive than negative, unless the assumption is that race is all that matters. (This is the assumption of the progressive movement, or close to it.) He owned the club from 1933 to 1976, making him the longest-tenured team owner in baseball history. Yawkey was a major force in building The Jimmy Fund, Boston’s charity for children stricken with cancer. When the Boston Braves left town for Milwaukee, Sox icon Ted Williams suggested to Yawkey that the Red Sox should assume the Braves’ sponsorship and support of the program, and the team has given millions to the Jimmy Fund ever since. While Yawkey was alive, no advertisements were permitted inside the park, except a large billboard for the Jimmy Fund. Here is what John Henry’s Fenway looks like:
You see that little circular logo on the wall, the one that is about a third of the size of the Gulf logo to the left? That’s all that’s left of Yawkey’s huge billboard. I think the current Red Sox ownership’s priorities are well-illustrated by the contrast.
Every bit of joy, commerce, publicity, excitement, civic pride, drama, social cohesion and more that Boston and New England have gained by their adoration of the Boston Red Sox are directly or indirectly due to the work and generosity of Tom Yawkey. I’ll be haunted if the city and the team show its ingratitude by not leaving the street by the park he loved as a remembrance of what he gave to them both.
Now I’ll quote myself in part, from an earlier essay dismantling calls for Yawkey’s name to be erased from the team’s history:
Remember, we are talking about accomplishments, recognition and gratitude, not character. In assessing what good a man has done and whether a life should be honored, attitudes are less relevant than achievements. Does the fact that Yawkey was a racist, the attitude and the consequences of it, outweigh everything else he did for the city, the sport, children, and cancer research?
The broader ethical issue is the continuing obligation all organizations and institutions have to honor their founders, builders and leaders—flaws, mistakes, warts and all. Every so often in Washington D.C. journalists beat the drums to take J.Edgar Hoover’s name off the F.B.I building. Hoover was, in many ways, a despicable man and a serial power abuser, but the F.B.I is his legacy. He built it, and he earned forever the right to be honored for that. Walt Disney had some dark and disturbing political beliefs, but the empire and culture his genius built doesn’t bear his name to honor those beliefs, any more than Yawkey Way salutes Tom Yawkey’s racial biases. They acknowledge a debt of gratitude for real, tangible contributions to his industry, his art, American society and millions of people.
…[In 2013], shaken by the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston’s spirits were raised and healed in great part by the triumphs of the Boston Red Sox, the team Tom Yawkey rescued and transformed into the spiritual heart of the community. Boston owes him for that, and always will. But to those…for whom political correctness trumps everything, the lives of history’s unenlightened deserve only ignominy and contempt.
Well said, Jack.
And I dub this mess…
The Confederate Statuary Ethics Train Wreck.